Products Liability Statute of Repose and its Exceptions Held to be Constituational

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently upheld the constitutionality of both the ten-year statute of repose under the Tennessee Products Liability Act (“TPLA”) and the exceptions thereunder for asbestos and silicone gel breast implant claims. In Adams v. Air Liquide America, L.P., No. M2013-02607-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 25, 2014), plaintiff filed a products liability claim related to injuries from silica exposure in his employment. Plaintiff was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, filed the claim in 2011, and it was undisputed that 1991 was the very latest time at which plaintiff could have first used or come into contact with defendants’ products. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the action was time-barred by the ten-year statute of repose found in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-103(a), and the trial court granted the motion.

On appeal, plaintiff asserted that the statute of repose violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution and Section 8 of the Tennessee Constitution because it carved out exceptions for asbestos and silicone gel breast implant related injuries, but not silica-related claims. Plaintiff asserted that the classes of claims for which there are exceptions were similarly situated to silica-related claims because both have long latency periods. According to plaintiff, there was no rational basis for distinguishing between these claims.

This constitutional challenge was examined under the rational basis standard, meaning that “if any state of facts can reasonably be conceived to justify the classification or if the reasonableness of the class is fairly debatable, the statute must be upheld.” Adams (citing Harrison v. Schrader, 569 S.W.2d 822 (Tenn. 1978)). In affirming the trial court’s summary judgment decision, the Court noted that “the statute of repose and its exceptions have been upheld under similar equal protection challenges[,]” including other challenges related to injuries with long latency periods. The Court essentially just adopted the reasoning of the trial court, quoting its conclusions that

silica and asbestos claims are not similarly situated by injury or class, asbestos has been classified as a toxic substance, whereas silica has not, silica has no similarity to silicone gel breast implants, and if silica-related claims and asbestos-related claims were similarly situated, the Tennessee General Assembly had a rational basis to distinguish between the two…silicosis is by its nature an occupational disease, whereas asbestosis is not so limited given the fact that it historically has been found in homes, schools and the like, in addition to the workplace (internal quotations omitted).

This case is a reminder that the ten-year statute of repose for TPLA claims is strictly enforced in this state. Even for injuries that were not known about during that ten-year period, this statute can be fatal to claims against product manufacturers.